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John Middleton Murry: The choice, democracy or modern warfare


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

John Middleton Murry: Selections on peace and war


John Middleton Murry
From Simplification and Society

There comes a moment when it is necessary that there should be a great simplification. The complexity of human society, the vast and still unconscious divorce which it engenders between our personal idealisms and the social conduct to which we are passively compelled, produces a feeling of paralysis and helplessness. We are being borne along, by forces we do not comprehend, to a destination we cannot discern. The feeling of helplessness is not new in human experience. What is new, oppressive, and sinister is the combination of a mastery over the forces of Nature, undreamed-of even 200 years ago, and a sense of impotence to prevent them from being perverted into scarcely imaginable powers of destruction and death. Humanity to-day is like Caliban: it turns savagely on the wisdom and spirit of the Universe.


There emerges – because there is bound to emerge at such a moment – a body of men and women who know that they too must surrender their freedom; but they do not surrender it to the State, or to Man. They surrender it to Reason, or Humanity, or God – to the power in themselves, which is not themselves, which makes for righteousness. They will have neither part nor lot in modern war. That is the only simplification possible for Democracy which does not betray the life of Democracy….


A modern nation may be able to wage modern warfare under the political form of Democracy; but it cannot wage modern warfare without killing the spirit of Democracy, for that spirit is indistinguishable from a spirit of reverence, or at least respect, for the individual human being. The indiscriminate mass-murder which is the essential feature of modern warfare, whereby it is distinguished from warfare in the past, is an activity which derides and annihilates the basic faith of Democracy. Just as surely, and perhaps more obviously, it derides and annihilates the basic faith of Christianity….When Democracy reaches the point at which it rejects the respect for human personality in its warfare, and in its preparation for war, it is preparing to commit suicide….


From Render Unto Caesar

There is a national society: it exists. But the international society does not exist. To pretend that it does, and seek to represent one’s nation at war as engaged in vindicating the majesty of law and executing justice on the offender against the international society is to deceive oneself and to indulge the confusion by which the pursuit of the national interest is identified with the pursuit of Justice.


“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” is twisted, in the mind of the modern churchman, into meaning: “Render therefore unto the modern nationalist State the national war which which the modern national State demands.”….Nevertheless, the pretence that the modern national state is the equivalent of the empire of Caesar is pure pretence. This is no Caesar to-day: there are many Caesars. But it is of the very essence of the Caesar of whom Jesus spoke that there should be but Caesar. The Caesar whom Jesus knew was the sole master of the known world, and above all he was the keeper of the world’s peace. His power maintained the unity and the peace of the whole world. And if, by some scarce hoped-for miracle, such a power were to be established to-day, to unify and pacify the whole world known to us, we should be wondering and awe-struck at the mystery of a power so universal and beneficent. We should not even find it hard to understand that Caesar was reverenced as the embodiment of an authority evidently divine.


And now, by the slow lapse of time and the gradual and almost imperceptible decay, first of the reality of the great international and supernational authority of the Roman Caesar, then in the belief in the necessity of such an authority as was inherited by the Roman Pontiff, the great utterance of our Lord has been perverted into its very opposite. What on his lips was an acceptance of the authority which compelled universal peace and the rejection of the claims of a mere nation to shatter the peace has become a vindication of the claim of the national State to demand of its citizens an acquiescence in national war that must plunge the world into chaos and barbarism.


From Warfare: Old and New

One need not deny for one moment that war has always been horrible and inhuman in order to insist that nevertheless warfare is now generically different from what it used to be. The first and foremost difference is that, under modern conditions, the whole nation is totally organized for war. This is a necessary consequence of a highly developed technical civilization, under which each country, by reason of a network of communication inconceivable a hundred years ago, is organized as a material unit to a degree hitherto unknown. That is, in its consequences, more significant than the development of the purely destructive technique of modern warfare. The invention of the thermite bomb, for example, would not be one tenth so terrible were it not for the simultaneous crowding of millions of people into great cities….

This technical unification of a country makes it possible to turn the whole of a nation into one vast war-machine; and, of course, in warfare what is possible is always necessary. If you do not do it, the enemy will. So that by the process of sheer inevitability it is quite impossible to make the faintest distinction between civilians and combatants. There is a sinister parallelism in the development. Just as methods of warfare are evolved which – like the thermite bomb or the gas-bomb – must be indiscriminate in the destruction which they inflict, so an economic organization is evolved which completely “justifies” indiscriminate destruction. Modern warfare has to be deliberately indiscriminate. The aim is no longer to defeat an army, but to wreck a nation.

This, it seems to me, does mark a change in kind in the nature of war. The history of warfare is brutal enough. There have been over and over again in the past bestial massacres of women and children in cities that have been taken by storm. But I think it is true to say that in the past men’s consciences have been uneasy about these horrors. They were inclined to think such a massacre a sin against their religion, or a degradation of their military honour. And, anyway, there were quite simple physical limitations to the butchery: the soldier’s sword-arm grew tired. Again, the horrors were localized. Armies were small. Sometimes, as in the Thirty Years’ War, they made up for their primitive lack of ubiquity by keeping up the carnage for a generation. But. speaking roughly, the destructiveness of war was sporadic and local.

We have changed all that. Not only is warfare now universalized: the whole population and the whole resources of a nation are now immediately implicated. Therefore the necessary method of waging warfare is to seek primarily to destroy or paralyze the unarmed population. Here is the real “horrid innovation” of modern warfare. The new technical devices of destruction are relatively unimportant beside the fact that they are to be used quite deliberately to massacre the innocents. There is, and there can be, no pretence of directing the destruction against a “military objective.” Or rather, to destroy and terrorize the women and children is henceforward a main and avowed military objective.

Surely, this is a change in the nature of warfare; and it betokens an impending change in the nature of the men who wage it. We may admit that trying to kill an armed enemy is horrible enough; but if he is trying to kill you, there is a certain rough equality in the struggle, which, even after the invention of gunpowder and the gun, justified the common and stubborn feeling that war was the forcing-ground of some heroic virtues. It was a more glorious and more gruesome fight; and the fighting instinct is pretty primary in the human animal.

The element of the “fair fight” in warfare has diminished steadily in a technical civilization. Now it has disappeared altogether….

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